State Library of South Australia

YouTube release is a record of how the Ninety-Mile Desert became productive farmlands

Date: 14 December 2015

Desert Conquest is probably the most significant of the 100 films and videos that we have released on YouTube to date. It is a visually powerful account of the Australian Mutual Provident (AMP) Society's Land Development Scheme that, in conjunction with post-war developments in agricultural science, transformed 300,000 acres of the Ninety-Mile Desert in South Australia's Lower South East.

Desert conquest on the State Library of SA YouTube Channel
Desert conquest on the State Library of SA YouTube Channel

Following a recommendation from long-time film enthusiast David Donaldson, we set about gaining permission to put this 1954 classic documentary on our YouTube channel.

A highlight of the film, made by Lex Halliday's Australian Instructional Films, is the participation of the scheme's workers and their families. The men were mainly returned servicemen who went on to settle the area.

The aerial views of the process of mass bush clearance the men developed are astonishing. Watch as ships' anchor chains dragged between tractors knock down one and a half acres of scrub every minute.

Chains dragged between tractors knock down one and a half acres of scrub every minute from the film Desert Conquest
Chains dragged between tractors knock down one and a half acres
of scrub every minute, from the film Desert Conquest.

Land Development Scheme workers from the film Desert Conquest
Land Development Scheme workers, from the film Desert Conquest.

Conquest map
The location of the Ninety Mile Desert, from the pamphlet about Desert
Conquest published by the AMP Society, 1959.

Ballot night when families secured their blocks with financial assistance from AMP from the film Desert Conquest
Ballot night when families secured their blocks with financial assistance from
AMP. The women in the second row are Mary Lines and Joan Spencer; next to
Joan is her son Douglas. From the film Desert Conquest. 

In conjunction with the National Film & Sound Archive we determined that AMP is the sole copyright holder of the film. Already aware of public interest in the film, AMP readily gave us permission to display it on YouTube. We hold three 16mm copies of the film, and once a digital preservation master was painstakingly produced by Film Preservation Officer Michael Veitch on our Flash Transfer film scanner, a surrogate was uploaded.

The State Library also holds accounts of the women of the AMP's scheme, both as the 1995 Wakefield Press book The Desert Blooms and as the 1992-1994 oral history project that provided the stories for the book. The interviewing program was organised by Carolyn Bullen of the Keith Community Library along with local journalist Adair Dunsford and the State Library's Oral History Officer. We also have the 1984 book Bush Battalion by June Fergusson which refers to many of the personalities involved in the scheme.

If you recognise any of the participants in the film Desert Conquest, make a note of the YouTube timecode and let us know at slsainfo@sa.gov.au.

Story by Beth M Robertson

Back to extra - Summer 2015 - the stories

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